The Greywater Powers That Be (or Be Not)
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In our effort to design one of the first Passivhaus-certified residences in the country at “JJJ Ranch,” we are taking the same approach that we integrate into all of our high-performance natural building residential projects. In accordance with this holistic systems-design approach, we would like to incorporate a greywater system for landscape irrigation, in order to decrease potable water consumption for landscaping use, to improve the landscape and onsite food production quality, and to decrease the load on the sewer system. At the outset of this research into the waste water policy of our State, we were already aware that the North Carolina 2006 Plumbing Code was the current code enacted at the state and county levels, and that this code defined greywater to be “waste water discharged from lavatories, bathtubs, showers, clothes washers and laundry sinks,” and that gray water was only to be used for flushing lavatories (not for irrigation). 2006 North Carolina Plumbing Code, Appendix C101
Our investigation into the existing code pertaining to a residential greywater system began by contacting the Buncombe County Permits and Inspection office. Our contact at this office sent us the 2009 Plumbing Code, in which there is detailed a greywater system for irrigation, much like an onsite septic field. When we inquired about the soil testing and approvals required within the code, this contact referred us to a Program Specialist at the Buncombe County Environmental Health Department, whose approval was necessary before a building permit could be approved. The Program Specialist informed us that a greywater irrigation system must be approved by the State Onsite Waste Water Department (under the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, DENR), and that OSWW would not approve such designs because waste water code does not distinguish between “black” and “grey” water—all must be hooked up to an approved septic system or field.
We then redirected our investigation to the state level and contacted the Plumbing Code Consultant under the NC Department of Insurance. This contact informed us that the design must be approved by DENR, and that they would most likely not approve it (again because Environmental codes do not distinguish between “black” and “grey” water). So, we contacted an Onsite Waste Water official under DENR. (Our email was intermediately redirected to a general Public Information Specialist at DENR, who referred us back to the Plumbing Code Consultant with whom we had spoken at the NC Department of Insurance.) The OSWW official that we had contacted informed us that we could either get approval through the OSWW Innovative & Experimental Systems Committee (under DENR) or through the Environmental Health Department, starting at the county level. The contact at I&E predicted that the design would not be approved, since the OSWW code does not recognize “grey” and “black” water separately, so we went back to the county level.
As we had already spoken to a Program Specialist at the Buncombe County Environmental Health Department, we contacted the Environmental Health Director, who after consulting with a Buncombe County Soils Specialist, informed us that the county is already approving the system described in the 2009 Plumbing Code, since any current building project would be finished after the code is to be enacted this coming summer.